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Panic Attacks: Can There be Calm Instead of Storm?

Panic attacks are nasty little–no, nasty huge–storms that can hit suddenly, and tear through the mind and body like an F5 tornado, the strongest type of this destructive storm. In describing tornadoes, Enchanted Learning says that their intensity is difficult to measure “because a tornado usually destroys local measuring equipment, and also because tornadoes only exist for a short time at random places and they are gone before meteorologists can study them.” That description sounds a bit like panic attacks, doesn’t it?

Panic attacks sometimes destroy our “measuring equipment,” the tools we are trying to develop and use to predict them and stop them before they start. Additionally, panic attacks also exist for a short time (they typically peak within 10-20 minutes, but sometimes they do last longer) even though it doesn’t feel short when we’re in the throes of one. And like tornadoes, they often leave us feeling flattened and defeated. They’re also painful, physically and emotionally.

My heart is trying to match the speed of light, and it’s beating so hard my chest hurts. There’s a loud crash. I jump. I need to leave I need to leave I need to leave I… “Hey dude! You here for the trivia challenge?” Bigfoot dressed in human clothes growls at me. Or maybe it’s just a a man with a shaggy beard. I try to answer whatever it is, but I can’t breathe. I cram my hands into my pockets so the waiter doesn’t see them tremble, but the tremor is so intense I bet he can see them anyway. This thought makes me feel worse, and now I’m sweating. My lungs cough in an effort to breathe better.

“Hey man, you okay?”

I can’t answer. I just nod my head as if my behavior right now is perfectly normal, then before the walls close further in on me, I turn to leave. Unfortunately, the floor has begun to wave, buckle, and slant, and I can’t move quickly enough. I still can’t see correctly, and I stumble right into a throng of people flooding in. I hear, “Hey! Watch it!” and “Pay attention to where you’re going!” I’m trapped. My chest constricts even more, and I’m suffocating. I feel like I can’t get enough oxygen, and my lungs spasm again in a loud cough. Now that I’ve started coughing fully, I can’t stop. In a frantic attempt to get out, I push forward and burst out onto the sidewalk. I manage to cough and stumble my way over to my bike, reach into the saddlebag, and pull out one of my paper bags. My fingers aren’t working right because they feel quivery and tingly, but I’ve grown to be an expert at this and eventually shake the bag open. I raise the bag to my face and begin to breathe into it. It works, and my breathing gradually calms down. My heart slows down again, and my vision returns to normal.

Brian Cunningham of My Life in a Nutshell: A Novel lives with debilitating anxiety. He’s crippled by social anxiety, generalized anxiety, and panic attacks (but because his panic attacks, sometimes called anxiety attacks, occur in the context of other anxieties and stressors, he doesn’t have panic disorder). Because of all of this, he has developed avoidant personality disorder. If merely trying to walk into a restaurant, as he does in the above scene, gives him so much anxiety and pain, of course he tries to avoid such things.

Tornadoes, the weather phenomena, develop suddenly and seemingly without warning, as do panic attacks. Kind of. It does seem as though we get blindsided by both the wind storms and the anxiety storms. Both of these terrible storms do actually have warning signs. With panic attacks, before the physical symptoms even begin we have signs of an approaching storm on our radar. The signs? Our own thoughts and interpretations of our world.

As Brian approaches the restaurant, called Little Bohemia, his thoughts are whirring and spinning out of control. He’s very upset with himself because he had been ordered by his boss to take a dinner break. I’m a complete and total idiot. I’m a clumsy moron who has to be ordered to go eat because I forgot to bring food to work. I feel like I’m seven instead of thirty-seven. What must Mrs. Clark think of me? I bet she thinks I’m less capable of taking care of myself than the kids at the school are. Oh good lord. What if she thinks I’m irresponsible in everything I do? What if she’s upset that she had to order me to go eat and that I actually listened to her and left the building when I should be working? What if she puts this in my file? What if she puts all of the supid things I do in my file and then when it’s time for my review I get fired? I can’t get fired. I like my job. What if I can’t find another one? Or what if I do find one but I have to work during the day when there are lots of other people around? I can’t do that. But I need money to live. What if I lose everything? I don’t have anywhere to go, and I don’t know what I’d do. Now my heart is pounding again. I’m dizzy. I have to get off this bike.

The “what-ifs” of generalized anxiety disorder race through Brian’s brain and feed off each other, making his anxious thoughts increase in intensity until they begin to cause physical pain, just like a tornado. With his current, very anxious, mindset, his perspective on the world is altered. Rather than seeing a simple restaurant, he sees this: I’m near a joint called Little Bohemia. The place sits between a second-hand clothing shop and a tobacco bar in a four-story brick building. Elaborate batik tapestries cover both of Little Bohemia’s large windows, concealing the danger that lurks within. The mini lights strung around the tapestries warn rather than welcome; their nearly imperceptible flickering sends a code carrying a simple message: run away as fast as you can.

Brian’s thoughts are so anxious, increased in intensity by his ‘what-ifs,’ that they cloud what he sees. His senses take in the same restaurant that others experience, but his interpretation of the building and the atmosphere are shaped by his thoughts. He becomes increasingly anxious until the brewing storm explodes into a full-blown panic attack. I’ve had panic attacks. Looking back on them, I’ve realized that I did have warning signs before they occurred. The signs were my own thoughts, my own interpretation of what was happening, my what-ifs, and my fears of what might happen. It didn’t seem so clear at the time they were occurring, of course. It took a great deal of self-reflection, of identifying my fears and faulty beliefs, of becoming mindful of the present rather than swirling away into the past or future.

Once I became cognizant of my self-talk and my specific anxieties, I was able to recognize them and confront them, countering them with thoughts and beliefs that were more realistic. In both our minds and in nature, there are storms. Fortunately, we can become aware of them, predict them with reasonable certainty (nothing is 100% certain), and take measures to minimize the storm’s impact or even get out of the path of the storm altogether. Then, our lives will be more about the calm before a storm than the storm itself.

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